Claire Clark had to adjust to a new culture and new ingredients when she left London to become head pastry chef at California's celebrated French Laundry. Two years on she has no regrets about the move, as Joanna Wood discovered
When I caught up with Claire Clark late last year in the atrium restaurant of London's Landmark hotel, a pianist was softly tickling the ivories while a few languid souls were taking afternoon tea and exchanging the latest gossip in a quintessentially English teatime ritual. Somehow the Englishness of the scene seemed to suit the person I had come to see. For despite now being based in Yountville in California's Napa Valley as head pastry chef at Thomas Keller's iconic French Laundry, Claire Clark has retained more than a touch of Albion about her.
"The first thing I did when I arrived in Yountville was get my silver teapot out and make a cup of tea," she laughs. "I could see Chef thinking ‘she's English, we'll let it go' , but the funny thing is that now a lot of the team have tea with me in the morning!"
Clark, 43, arrived at the French Laundry two years ago, having already had an illustrious career which encompassed heading up the pastry kitchens at Claridge's and London's glitzy grand café, the Wolesley. It was a brave move to uproot herself and shift to America's West Coast. California isn't exactly a short hop from the UK, and it wasn't as though Clark had to prove herself in career terms, having spent nearly 25 years establishing herself in the vanguard of British pâtisserie. She had, however, just gone through a protracted divorce and was mentally and physically burnt-out. "It was all about change," she says. "I just needed to step away from my life as it was then. I was ready to leave London."
Fortuitously, a friend told her that Keller was looking for a new pastry chef for the French Laundry, recognised for many years as one of the world's top restaurants even before Michelin entered the American market and awarded it three stars in 2006.
Her initial reaction was lukewarm, not least because she hadn't envisaged leaving the UK, but after she'd thought the idea through she thought "why not?" and went for an interview with Keller when the latter was over on a visit to London in late spring 2005. "We spent two hours talking about his philosophy at the French Laundry, and a little about me, and that was it," she recalls.
Well, almost. Following their first chat, Keller asked Clark to visit the Yountville restaurant to put her through her paces before signing on the dotted line. En route, she was vetted at Keller's New York gastro temple, Per Se, by Sebastian Rouxell, her predecessor at the French Laundry who is now executive pastry chef for Keller's group of restaurants which, in addition to French Laundry and Per Se, includes Bouchon in Yountville and an outpost in Las Vegas.
Having been given the thumbs up by Rouxell, Clark then flew on to California and cooked for Keller. Two petits fours ("I did 10 to show off"), a plated dessert, a sorbet, a millefeuille and a chocolate tart ("Sebastian tipped me off that it was his favourite dessert") later, the job was finally in the can, and in September 2005 Clark and her silver teapot finally took up residence in the pastry kitchen of the French Laundry.
Two years on, reflecting on the start of her American adventure, Clark admits the first year was hard. Although "everyone was really great", adjusting to a new culture, new ingredients - even a new language - proved challenging. "Most of my team are American and half the time we couldn't understand each other," she says with a giggle. "They'd say things like 10x instead of icing sugar, AP instead of plain flour (it stands for all-purpose flour), cookie sheet instead of baking tray and piping nozzle instead of piping tip. Very confusing."
By far the greatest eye-opener for Clark, though, was experiencing at first hand Keller's legendary attention to detail. "The French Laundry is unique. I really have never seen anything like it," she enthuses. "There's so much put into it, from raking the pebbles in the drive twice a day to the way they blow and collect the leaves. Everyone's so passionate about giving the customer a special experience that they're prepared to go to extreme levels.
"The fish have to be packed swimming one way, all the jars in the kitchen have to face the same way and go from tall to small with printed labels (never scribbled). Everything's immaculate. That's how Thomas is. He's obsessive, but he's also the most exceptional person and treats everybody with the utmost respect and dignity. I'd like to be like that one day."
Clark found herself on an upward learning curve in culinary matters, too. There were new ingredients and flavour profiles to get her head round, such as like green oranges - orange-skinned but green-fleshed citrus fruit that taste like limes - and cactus juice, which, apparently, has a fresh, grassy taste. And then there were the flavours that epitomised Mexico, second nature to American chefs but alien to chefs, like Clark, raised in the classical European tradition.
"I knew about chillies and the odd chocolate but there's also limes, polenta and cornmeal, which is huge in Mexico," she explains, going on to describe the process of creating desserts in the Mexican vein. "The whole team comes together and you just say, ‘OK we've got these flavours, what are we going to do with them?' You might come up with a lime sorbet with a chilli compote of something like persimmons and maybe put a cornmeal financier with them. Or a chilli chocolate pudding. You just have to get your mind and your palate in that set, and that's difficult when you're not familiar with the ingredients."
Aromas and tastes
Clark's brain and palate are now attuned to the aromas and tastes of Mexico, but she's not yet a total convert to its flavour profiles. "I just don't like the polenta and grits [corn]," she confesses in a conspiratorial whisper, before adding, "Maybe with time… "
There are also some staples she's not too fond of, like huckleberries, but American culinary traditions she loves include the habit of using carmel - chocolate and marshmallow together - and the propensity to employ a dash of salt to enhance sweet flavourings.
"I've definitely moved my skills up a notch and extended them," she asserts. In this, she's aided and abetted by the constant supply of seasonal fruit from Keller's Californian agricultural holding, Jacobson's Farm. Being picked in the French Laundry's back yard, the fruit is harvested at its optimum quality, ensuring an intensity of fresh, deep flavours.
"It's so easy to make things taste good when they're that fresh," says Clark. "You name it, we get it from the farm. We've had pounds and pounds of apricots, peaches, cherries, raspberries, figs, oranges, limes, grapefruit it just goes on from one season to another. So much that we just don't know what to do with it. We've made 3,000 jars of jam this year. I've never made so much jam in my life!"
Of course, Clark hasn't coped with the fruit glut on her own. The jamming experience has been shared with her four-strong pastry team. "They're great," she says. "A good mix of boys and girls." Under her leadership they create dainty morsels specifically for the Yountville flagship, with the occasional exception of things like the fruit jams which are also sold through Bouchon, as is something which has become a bit of a restaurant trademark since Clark joined the French Laundry - shortbread.
"They used to give customers macaroons to take home after a meal, but when I joined, Chef wanted to do something to reflect me, so suggested shortbread instead," she explains. "I made up about six different kinds but in the end came back to my Mum's old recipe, and to this day it's his favourite of all the things I've made. I don't know whether to be honoured or upset, but my Mum's over the moon."
Her indignant laughter subsiding, Clark becomes serious once more when I ask her if she has any regrets about the move across the pond. "No, I don't regret anything. It was the right move for me and I love it here. There are things I miss - the proms, the opera house, my friends - but I work for the most amazing and inspirational chef I have ever come across and have the best ‘family' in the world at the French Laundry."
BLOOD ORANGE, CARA CARA AND MANDARIN JELLIES WITH PINK GRAPEFRUIT HACHE
200ml blood orange juice (4-5 oranges)
200ml cara cara (red navel) orange juice (4-5 oranges)
200ml mandarin juice (4-5 mandarins)
200ml pink grapefruit juice (4-5 grapefruit)
Juice of 1 lemon
20 gelatine leaves
500g caster sugar
3 pink grapefruit
Strain all fruit juice through very fine sieve, keeping juices separate. Soak gelatine in a large bowl of cold water for about five minutes until very soft, making sure they do not clump together.
Put sugar and water in a pan, bring to boil, stirring to dissolve sugar.
When syrup reaches rolling boil, remove from heat. Measure out 800ml of syrup in a jug, reserve excess. Squeeze out excess water from cooked gelatine and add to the jug syrup. Mix and pass through fine sieve.
Measure 200ml of hot gelatine syrup. Mix with 200ml of blood orange juice. Repeat process and amount for each fruit juice. Keep separate. Use lemon juice to adjust sweetness of each fruit to taste.
Pour one of the jellies into a large serving dish (or 10 individual glasses if you prefer), saving a little for the garnish. Refrigerate.
When set, repeat process for each fruit juice. For final layer, splash on the amounts of reserved fruit juice, setting between each juice, to create a free design pattern.
For haché, slice top and bottom off grapefruit. Peel, removing all pith. Cut out segments and chop finely. Place in small dish. Warm remaining sugar syrup and pour over haché.
Serve with jelly.
BRAMLEY APPLE AND CINNAMON RISOTTO
(Serves four to six)
50g unsalted butter
100g risotto rice, rinsed
600g Bramley apple juice
2 Bramley apples, peeled and grated
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of ground mixed spice
Caster sugar, to sweeten
For the cinnamon custard
500ml double cream
7 medium egg yolks
50g caster sugar
1tsp ground cinnamon
5 Bramley apples, peeled and cored and roughly chopped
150ml organic cider
Sugar, to taste
OR apple balls and caramel sauce
Suggested accompaniment: chilled Pedro Ximenez sherry
Melt butter in a non-stick frying pan. Add rice and stir over a medium heat until coated in butter. Add a third of the apple juice, all of the grated apple and stir well.
Lower heat, cook slowly until apples break down and juice is absorbed. Add rest of juice gradually, absorbing between each addition and stirring occasionally.
When all juice is absorbed, check rice to see if cooked and add a little extra juice if necessary for cooking rice out. Remove from heat.
Add spices and sugar to taste. Spoon into glasses and level top. Leave to cool, then chill until set.
For the cinnamon custard, bring cream to boil. Beat egg yolks with sugar in a bowl.
When cream has come to the boil, pour over yolks, stirring. Transfer back to saucepan, cook over low heat until custard thickens. Remove from heat. Pass through fine sieve.
Add cinnamon and blitz for a few seconds until custard becomes lighter and more viscous.
Spoon or pipe on top of risotto immediately. Refrigerate.
For garnish, put chopped apples in a pan, add cider, cook gently until fruit forms a compote. Continue cooking until any excess liquid has evaporated.
Sweeten to taste. Cool. Spoon on top of set custard. Alternatively, decorate with a few apple balls poached in cider and pour over some caramel sauce.
CHOCOLATE RED WINE CAKEIngredients
(Serves six to eight)
125g unsalted butter, softened
125g caster sugar
2 medium eggs, lightly beaten
150ml red wine, room temperature (Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot)
125g plain flour
1tsp ground cinnamon
1/4tsp ground cloves
1tsp cocoa powder
1tsp baking powder
65g dark chocolate (55-57% cocoa solids), grated
30g caster sugar
125ml red wine (Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot)
1 jar redcurrant jelly
300g dark chocolate, tempered
Optional: raspberry sorbet and hot chocolate sauce
Preheat oven to 170°C. Grease and flour 25cm bundt tin. Cream butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add beaten eggs, one at a time, beating well between each addition. Add 150ml red wine. Mix well. Sift flour, cinnamon, cloves, cocoa powder, baking powder together. Sift again, then fold a tablespoon at a time in to creamed mixture. Fold in grated chocolate. Transfer to bundt tin. Level. Bake in centre of oven for 35 minutes until well risen. Skewer-test to check if cooked. Once cooked, cool in tin for 20 minutes, then take out and cool completely. Clean tin for reuse.
To soak the cake, bring water and sugar to the boil in a small pan, stir in 125ml red wine. Fill bundt tin with red wine syrup. Place cooled cake back in tin. Once liquid has been absorbed, reverse cake out again, being careful not to damage. Cool.
Bring redcurrant jelly to a rolling boil in small pan. Remove from heat, then brush hot jelly over cake. Let jelly set, then repeat process to get glossy finish.
To garnish cake, make discs of tempered chocolate. Once cooled, cut off base using hot knife so that they sit flat at the bottom of cake (see above).
Thomas Keller on Claire Clark
Extract from Thomas Keller's foreword to Claire Clark's Indulge: 100 Perfect Desserts
"I was concerned about Claire coming to our small quiet town of Yountville after having worked in a bustling city. Her move to the Napa Valley uprooted her from all she had known and [separated] her from her tightly knit family and friends.
"Her challenges were compounded by her inexperience of working with American products, having to convert all her recipes, adapting to our changing seasons and, more importantly, understanding our philosophy about desserts.
"Through hard work and determination she has earned the respect of her peers not just in her native country, but all over the world. Her accomplishments are extraordinary and [she] has been creating wonderful dining memories for our restaurant and guests ever since she first started working with us."
Claire Clark has just published her first book, Indulge: 100 Perfect Desserts (£20, Absolute Press), which she started two years ago just before she upped sticks and moved to California.
"It's aimed at people with a passion for pastry - domestic cooks, mainly. But then when I'd finished it I thought, ‘this is a student book', because all the recipes I've included are my ‘first' recipes, including the basic building blocks I use all the time," she says.
"If you want a recipe for ganache, it's there if you want a strudel dough, or a custard recipe or Battenberg recipe, they're there as well."
What began as a concise and general dessert-based tome soon mushroomed. "It just kept growing and eventually we sat down and said that if it was going to be a pastry book then we needed to look at all the areas, excluding doughs - that's for next time - and suddenly we had 100 recipes," Clark recalls.
On the whole, Clark says she enjoyed the process, aside from translating the ingredient amounts in metric form in the early drafts into cups for the American market.
"It was a nightmare. We'd get things like ‘one cup and three-quarters plus two tablespoons'.
"Too stupid," she grimaces. "In the end we just carried imperial and metric."